Must the artist not have left a foot in his childhood, and projected the other one into his grave?
—Hervé Guibert, The Mausoleum of Lovers
On my way to the next literary event, the first thing I’ll wonder is who I will see. The second is what I’ll see: nothing? Beer and wine? Or, by some grace, a full bar? I’ll rehearse the words — Sapphire martini, extra dirty — and picture myself among real writers, balancing that conic drain of a cocktail whose slivers of ice drift into each other as they too drown in gin. It won’t last long, and neither will the next, and neither will my self-respect, but regretting what I’ll say will last months. In the morning, I’ll withdraw: from social media, from events. My story will be that no one in the industry wants anything to do with me; they’ve only tolerated me thus far. I’ll cultivate isolation. When I become lonely, I’ll text another writer, whose response won’t be the affirmation I want. I’ll delete the conversation and spend all my time reading. Some passage will seem sharable. I’ll log in to social media. People will like it, which will mean they like me. I’ll belong to them for a while. Later, I’ll attend some reading or party. The first thing I’ll wonder is who will be there. You know the second.
In western art, each of us is supposed to strive toward the unique. To do this, we use a variety of familiar forms. Above is the form, or image, I’ve chosen for myself as a writer. Writers are artists, and the story of artists is that we suffer. On my wrists you’ll find scars, and in my fiction you’ll find suicide. Nearly every intellectual conversation upsets me, and if it doesn’t, I desperately crave that person’s friendship. In Tampa, at a writer’s conference, I slept a total of seven hours but had 14 drinks. I’m not proud of this, but I wear it perversely. Look — it translates — how fucked up I am: shorthand in art’s vocabulary for brilliant but unbearable.
This image of the artist is untangled in Margot Wittkower’s study of artists and personality, Born Under Saturn. First, Aristotle noted an excess of black bile, or melancholy, in creative men. Much later, as the Reformation thinned support for artists, these former craftsmen began to obsess over one another’s lives. They sold themselves on not only talent but also personality. By the 19th century, this was pathological; every artist was assumed to be, in some way, a disturbed individual, which did little to dissuade artists from recklessly playing the part.
We all aspire in some way to be images. Saturn spends 2.46 years in each sign of the zodiac. A fact is that in November 1984, I was born under Saturn. A myth is that Saturn intensifies but imposes limitations on the traits of Scorpio: domineering, controlling, strong-willed, ruthless, manipulative, and enduring. We recognize ourselves in our aspirations. I want to believe the hardships of my life are trials over which I can triumph by creating art, which means the hardships become part of my story. I nurture them like plot points. Astrology is a fascism for people who don’t want to hurt anyone but themselves.
The past few months have been hard for me. After my novel debuted, I sank into depression, believing myself a fraud and my book a failure despite its positive reception. I drank more. I isolated. I wrote neurotic emails to my peers. I saw friends where there were only colleagues, the imbalance of which corroded my self-esteem. I called this suffering, which meant it was good for my art. Thankfully, I kept reading, and it wasn’t until I read the essays collected in Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel that I felt a hand reach out to me:
Why does the talented student of writing stop? It is usually the imagination, turned to creating a story in which you are a failure, and all you have done has failed, and you are made out to be the fraud you’ve feared you are.
Like Chee, I’d always been told I had talent, which created a narrative where all I had to do was write; and so I wrote, and I published, but something short-circuited. Talent is nice, but you also need confidence in your work, no matter how others read it. Chee helped me remember how much better it feels to work than to hear people talk about your work.
Soon after, another hand reached out. In The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, Leslie Jamison structures a unique memoir around her drinking, as well as the drinking of famous writers. The book is an AA meeting, wounded people telling their stories. As a young writer, Jamison recalls, “The myths of Iowa City drinking ran like subterranean rivers beneath the drinking we were doing.” She falls in love with the myth of the alcoholic genius, but drinking begins dismantling her life. She fears the banal repetition and clichés of AA — “Giving up on singularity was like giving up on the edges of my own body. What would I be, if I wasn’t singular?” — but soon realizes that recovery doesn’t have to equal “creative death,” but instead can reveal itself as “a series of generative formal constraints: finding stories in the world and trying to map their contours.” Clichés, after all, make up the structure of language itself. The image of the drunken artist replaces itself with the image of the recovering artist, which has its own grammar and connotations. While reading Jamison’s memoir, I saw myself as addicted to suffering, as relishing a radiant and meaningless pain.
I took each of these hands and let them pull me up out of that pain. There’s a cliché in this, too, which I embrace: Forms are what artists have given each other for thousands of years, and to reject them is self-destructively vain.
That suffering is interesting, even useful, is one of our cruelest myths. Borderline personality disorder is a psychosis that has nearly killed me. Alcoholism is a neurological disease. That we romanticize them isn’t new; illness is often deployed to reinforce societal roles, aka power structures. In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag observes how “the Romantics moralized death in a new way: with the TB death, which dissolved the gross body, etherealized the personality, expanded consciousness.” Tuberculosis, in the 19th century, was a mysterious ailment associated, thanks to playwrights and novelists, with bohemian poverty:
According to the mythology of TB, there is generally some passionate feeling which provokes, which expresses itself in, a bout of TB. But the passions must be thwarted, the hopes blighted.
Artists were vulnerable to this myth. The 19th-century fantasies of TB “echo the attitudes of early capitalist accumulation. One has a limited amount of energy, which must be properly spent…Energy, like savings, can be depleted, can run out or be used up, through reckless expenditure.” Making art was one way to expend this energy, a fast and hard life that consumed the body. To suffer and die for one’s art became moral, even beautiful. Suffering legitimized the earned value of art.
Curiously, this ideology benefits art collectors, as artists learn to expect less for their work, believing instead in the beauty of their suffering. To make art, artists convince themselves that their image of suffering must be maintained. Again, Sontag writes, TB had a hand in this. Its romanticization “is the first widespread example of that distinctly modern activity, promoting the self as an image.” While the image of the artist in 2018 has transcended the pale, tubercular waif — preferring instead the trembling drunk or lonely neuropath — we still see TB, Sontag writes, in “women’s fashions (with their cult of thinness),” which present a violent image of beauty: the body ravaged and weak.
Artists love to see beauty as frail, as ravaged, which makes beauty a consumptive ideology. Hito Steyerl, in Duty Free Art, her treatise on the art industry, sees beauty’s danger in the same place as Sontag:
That beauty can be a problem is immediately clear if we look at fashion models…They are defined as more beautiful, the more starved they are. Supreme beauty in capitalist terms is achieved when a human body is able to work, day in, day out, virtually without food: utility equals beauty.
For artists, this confers a moral value upon virtual starvation: The less we receive, the more beautiful our creations. Again, this benefits the industry itself, which implies that fair compensation will fatten us up and dull our capacities, marring the beauty of our works.
This is a lovely story, but it has nothing to do with beauty. Capitalism, too, relies upon forms — upon images and myths — and the story of the suffering artist is one of its sinister masterpieces. Art has its own economy. “As an alternative currency,” Steyerl writes, “art is a networked, decentralized, widespread system of value.” Its history is replete with unique works that have little or no value while their creators are alive but are suddenly desirable once those individual artists die. As a currency, art sees inflation upon the death of its creators.
It is in the interest of capital not only that artists die quickly, but also that, prior to their deaths, their art be exacted for as little compensation as possible. Art is seized and sold at maximum profit while artists congratulate themselves on dying.
“Pain is information,” Chee writes. “Pain has a story to tell you. But you have to listen to it.” Indulging in pain is not listening, only repeating. It’s easy to get stuck in a loop of pain: “We repeat something so that we can forget the pain of it. We set out to get it right instead, to fix what went wrong. But we can never fix the past.”
The year 2018 is a hard time to be alive. On top of everything, in June we saw two celebrity suicides: Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, two successful individuals whose deaths shook many people, including me. Newspapers then reported their chosen methods, which for those with borderline disorder is a magnetic nightmare. But it did help me see my recent dalliance with depression as the danger it was, not to mention the cruel myth of suffering our culture imposes upon artists. Suffering is useful, it says. Even profitable. “This will be great for your writing,” people have presumed to tell me about this or that pain in my life. Don’t seek help, this myth whispers as we strive toward an image of greatness, cripplingly alone.
Thank god — whatever that is — for Chee’s essays. Thank god for Jamison’s memoir. They helped me listen to my pain, whose repetition was addicting. I aspired to become the artist you see in movies. “One of the core promises of capitalism — transformation through consumption — is another version of the promise addiction makes,” Jamison writes. The metaphor of illness consumes the body and transforms organic matter into art. I wanted so badly to believe this. “Yearning is our most powerful narrative engine,” Jamison goes on, “and addiction is one of its dialects.” So I sought out a different voice. I shuffled these tarot cards that called me beautiful, that called me a flame that would flare up and burn out. Death is no fucking story: It is death, beyond which there are no more stories, no more voices, and no more art. I want to make art. I want to survive. The cards are different now; their images show stability in my work, hope in my surroundings, strength in my psyche, and above all an embrace of my community. All of us are trying so hard to speak to one another, and I’m grateful to have listened before I let my pain take me where no one could follow.